A Reflection on BREATHE, A New Musical from behind the curtain
It wasn’t my intention to play a part in the Arts at Center Street’s recent production, “Breathe: A New Musical,” But as the last audition was finishing up, I found myself pacing outside the theater. The director’s assistant poked her head out, “Are you next?” Beneath the lights of center stage, I recited a monologue I held to memory from a decade earlier. I wasn’t certain that I would get a part but I knew I would regret not taking the chance.
What I didn’t know was what a beautiful story I was getting the opportunity to help tell. “Breathe” is about the gifted Dr. Walker’s confrontation with a respiratory illness that plagues his only daughter. As one who has set out to do good in all he puts his mind to, he learns about his limits as a man, but he is also compelled by love to do something to save his daughter and other kids like her.
I was cast in the chorus as Nurse Deb, which I decided was exactly the kind of role I wanted. Playing a background/chorus character gave me the greatest advantage of watching the story unfold from various perspectives. One of my favorite things in life is to watch people I know do well at what they do, and if there is anything I can do to help make that happen, then I feel fulfilled. The more time the cast spent sitting in their respective roles, the more we began to work as a sort of family in this fictional micro-world of hospital life. The doctors had a sense of camaraderie, as did the nurses and the many children on set. I think the strongest sense of unity came when director and writer, Gregg Garner, would sit with us and share the stories behind the characters. Stories about our health care system, chronic illness, respiratory disease and cancer were often heavy to sit with, but they also drove us to absorb the story line with the desire to tell this story with heart.
In the second act of the play, I have a short monologue sharing in a therapy session as a person suffering from chronic illness. This particular role was not fictional for me. In fact, I’m sure all the words from my monologue are things I have said, not once, but many times over the years. Sharing those words in the context of this story allowed me to embrace my experience in a new way. “My sick is my normal... I’m Deb and I’m sick.” is how my monologue concludes. I realized that I may not be who I once was, but who I am now is still someone that has life, has friends, a healthy marriage and family. Life is full regardless of the challenges brought on by illness, and I am loved as I am.
It was a privilege to learn the lyrics to each of the songs, and to hear how intricately they were placed in the story line, sung by each of the characters. What I love about theater is that stories can be told in a way that cannot be communicated in prose. The songs added to that beauty, driving the emotive quality of the story and bringing you into the moment with the characters. I especially enjoyed the magic that happened between the lead characters, Dr Walker (played by Skylar Aaseby) and his wife Charity (played by Tori Roufs). From start to finish, I could see how taking on the story of these characters changed them as people. Their characters were no longer just roles for the stage but they became the faces of real-life love and hope and loss.
Opportunities to tell such meaningful stories don’t come along that often. By our last performance, I know nobody on the cast, or anyone involved, was looking to promote themselves. That’s something unique about the Arts at Center Street Theater company. Though professional, the hearts of the players, as you can read in the play program, are to bless others -- to share a meaningful story with others, and not to “make it big,” in their career. A shared concern of blessing the audience with a powerful message changes the whole game, and I believe we did that.
The Breathe story affected each of us in different ways. One particular lesson shared amongst many of us was the fragility of life. When people understand the brevity of life, or how fragile it can be, it causes them to consider their moments more carefully. To really look at their spouse, or their child, or their friend, and not rush through the small moments with them. After one of the shows I heard Gregg say, “As long as you’re breathing, you can still hold one another.” As simple a truth that this is, it wasn’t until “Breathe” that I learned to see breathing as an opportunity to hug and hold the ones dear to me just a minute longer.
We go through life one breath at a time,
It’s the beautiful sound of being alive.”